Previous month:
October 2015
Next month:
December 2015

Chris and Ernest's Brazilian Adventure

TeresinaAs usual, I'll be taking a break from social media and blogging for the Wheel of Fortune, which this year happens to correspond with my trip to Teresina in Brazil with Dr. Adams for our keynotes at SBGames. I have some fun things lined up for the run-up to the Winter Festival, though, so look for signs of life around December.

More nonsense soon!

The Game of Art

This is a reply to Jeroen’s letter about giving up the A-word, published on Monday this week, as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Seven Wonders Puzzle (detail)Dear Jeroen,

To give up the word ‘art’ is not, it is clear, to give up any of the benefits of enjoying artworks. So why defend a notion of ‘art’ at all?

Let me begin by thanking you profusely for your missive, which has helped to shake me out of recent doldrums regarding blogging. This alone almost makes Twitter, where most of our exchanges occur, seem a more justified element of my existence. Your game has great interest for me but is not quite a new one. Indeed, I must begin by quoting Jacques Rancière, who states: “The discontent with aesthetics is as old as aesthetics itself.” This will require further elaboration, about which more anon, for having cited this I must dovetail your game with a more earnest version of the same that was published in New Literary History four years ago.

In “Doing Without Art”, literary scholar Steven Connor begins with the aforementioned quotation, before launching into a diatribe that I would describe as a far less playful predecessor to your game. He too compares the use of the concept of ‘art’ to magic (specifically, to magical thinking) and insists that not only could we do without it that really we ought to do so. Playing your game is one thing, expecting it to have a force upon others is another – and not coincidentally, I think, this is precisely what aesthetic judgement does to us, as Kant brilliantly deduced when he inadvertently kicked off what Rancière would term ‘the aesthetic regime of art’. The connection between magic and moral (or moral-like) imperatives is a dead give away that you and Connor are both positivists, and thus propelled by different winds to those that fill my own sails.

Those whose faith in the sciences is stronger than mine generally feel morally impelled to give up magic and magical thinking. What can sometimes be overlooked in this regard is the ways that all language is magical in its sheer metaphorical dependence, a point brilliantly brought home by philosopher of mathematics Stephen Yablo, whom I draw from often and especially in Imaginary Games. So if one is compelled to give up ‘art’ because of its untestable, anti-positivistic nonsense, one ought to be prepared for just how much must be thrown from the stricken balloon. Farewell nations and cities, for a start, you are merely an abstraction with no firm grounding. So long personal identity – surely just a narrative device, as Daniel Dennett has deftly argued (like a dozen religions before him!). Oh, and goodbye Science too – that most magical of words, the thing that unites an impossibly diverse collection of research practices into a coherent whole. It must go. But what positivist can make this final cut without a twinge of regret...?

This parallel between Art and Science is not coincidental, and also takes us back to Kant, whose philosophical analyses undergird an incomprehensibly wide array of contemporary ideas. In both cases, we are tying together a panoply of practices within a guiding principle of unity – and in both cases, what that principle might be is not actually that clear, frequently borders upon the circular, and yes, is often rather magical. Reading Foucault and appreciating his methods for tracing the histories of practices (as I wrote about earlier this year in Foucault’s Archaeology) has given me stronger appreciation for what I had only sensed before, and Foucault is also Rancière’s guide when it comes to the question of art. I mentioned above Rancière’s observation that discontentment with the concept of ‘art’ is as old as aesthetics. He quotes the following:

It is time we got completely rid of that expression which, ever since Kant, is ever and always to be read in the writings of amateurs of philosophy, even though its absurdity has often been recognized.... Aesthetics has become a veritable qualitas occulta – hidden behind this incomprehensible word there are many nonsensical assertions and vicious circles in arguments that should have been exposed long ago.

This reads just like Steven Connor’s argument that I compared to your game, yet this prose was written around 1810 by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, a century earlier. The problem, of course, is that the practices within which ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics’ take their meaning are fluid precisely because they deal with human experiences that are neither entirely private nor truly open to rigorous dissection. If we want to get a handle upon this problem, we need to trace matters differently, using methods like Foucault’s archaeology.

In this vein, Rancière identifies three regimes that have defined our understanding of artworks throughout Western history. Firstly, the ethical regime of images, which I shall skip over for brevity, then the representative regime of arts – which links up with your comment about the Elizabethan arts – and finally the aforementioned aesthetic regime of art that Kant initiates with his marvelous Critique of Judgement. I cannot do this conception justice here, but the important point is that in moving from a list of representative arts to the question of aesthetic experiences, Kant starts a very new game – the one in which ‘art’ is the key term, and the one to which your counter-game reacts.

Rancière says it more concisely than I can: “Indeed, ‘art’ is not the common concept that unifies the different arts. It is the apparatus that renders them visible.” This is the very purpose of playing the game of ‘art’ – and indeed, as my own research has revealed, the parallel game of defending a conception of ‘game’. In both cases, aesthetic values are revealed by the ways that people include (and thus valorise) certain things in their category, and exclude (and thus slight or denigrate) other things.

These games are among the most wonderful that we humans play, and even though I have forsworn the question of ‘what is a game?’ in order to better understand games I feel the need to play the game of ‘art’ in order to secure – to a greater degree than I have already attempted – the lauded status of ‘art’ for certain games. This game is as engaging for me as yours is to you, although perhaps the stakes are slightly higher. The future directions of an entire cluster of media might be open to influence through our participation, and to fail to act seems to tacitly endorse the endless pornification of play that currently dominates. I don't know... maybe I am just under art’s spell, but for me the fact that ‘art’ is magic is precisely its appeal.

With great respect,


The opening image is a detail from Seven Wonders Puzzle by Brandi Strickland, which I found here on her website, As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Jeroen replied with Discourses: Reflecting on the A-word with Chris Bateman. Other replies and comments always welcome.

Buying a Kingdom

Over on ihobo this morning, my thoughts on Activision-Blizzard’s acquisition of King. Here’s an extract:

There has been much chatter in the corner of the internet comparing Disney’s $4.05 billion purchase of Lucasfilm to Activision-Blizzard’s $5.9 billion deal for Candy Crush’s King Digital Entertainment. A lot of this has been surprise or disappointment that the viral game company is worth more than the Star Wars franchise. This gets right which intellectual property motivated the acquisitions. It gets wrong the way that market value operates.

I mostly posted this so I could say I posted every day this week, and feel good about my blogging for once! But it makes an interesting point about the disconnect between personal economics and corporate finance. You can read the whole of Buying a Kingdom over on

The Martian as Robinsonade

Contains spoilers for the 2015 film The Martian, and one moderate swear word quoted from it.

The MartianThe 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars proudly declares on its poster: “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” You can guess, simply from the year and title, what we would make of this claim today. Fifty years later, Ridley Scott’s The Martian plots exactly the same vector, just from a different starting point.

The most realistic aspect of Scott’s The Martian, adapted from the self-published novel by Andy Weir, is that its protagonist, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, never questions his faith in the power of science to save him. Beyond this earnest depiction of contemporary non-religious zeal, the movie’s claims to showcase anything that might be called ‘real’ evaporate. This, indeed, is inevitable: the lesson from The Martian, should we choose to accept it, is that ‘realism’ describes accordance with whichever mythologies we align with our concept of ‘reality’. That does not mean nothing is true: it just highlights the problems entailed in trying to assert terms like ‘realistic’ in connection with imagined events.

The Martian is real to positivists  (those who put their faith in the sciences) in precisely the same way something like The Greatest Story Ever Told is real to Christians – right down to the way either cultural cohort would approach nit-picking the content. There is a quasi-religious fervour to the way ‘scientific inaccuracy’ is reported in connection with films such as this, a duty to educate on the back of entertainment, all while extolling the need to witness the film in question for its edifying qualities. While there is no denying (for instance) that the Martian dust storm that serves as the inciting incident would be harmless because of the thinness of the atmosphere on Mars, as the author of the original book acknowledges, I was personally more bothered by the internal problems this creates. If killer storms are an aspect of Mars in the fictional world of The Martian, it cannot be the case that the rockets for departure are recklessly sent by NASA years in advance and ready-to-fly, a key plot device upon which hangs the resolution of the film’s crisis. Mind you, none of this matters in terms of claims to this being a ‘realistic’ story, since such a claim is not about what could happen but about how we conceive reality.

To call The Martian a Robinsonade i.e. a tale in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, is perhaps not too surprising. Surely many expected they were going to see Castaway in Space, rather than Apollo 13: Martian Edition. But herein lies the insurmountable rift at the centre of any claim to realism leveled against the film; not that physics, chemistry, and biology are neglected (rather, they are lavishly worshiped, however inaccurate some details may be), but that the central character is not a character, but a mere cipher through which the miracles of Science are channeled. I would compare Mark Watney to Moses, if it were not for the fact that Moses could barely believe the incredible superpowers that flowed through him. Like the preacher upon the pulpit, Watney doesn’t have to be human; to have our frailties, our weaknesses, to fall prey to depression, to slip from sanity – all this is impossible in the given role. Watney, like a good fundamentalist, never questions, and never doubts the agent of his salvation. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he declares. Hallelujah, brother, testify!

It could reasonably be objected that The Martian doesn’t work as a Robinsonade because so much of the story entails the work of NASA to line up all the necessary science-flavoured plot devices involved in its hero’s rescue. It is certainly a twist on the format! But in many respects this helps reinforce the way that both stories are deeply colonial in their perspective. Writing in the same year as Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released, the Irish author James Joyce noted that Defoe’s protagonist was the “true prototype” of the colonialism of the British Empire. Joyce remarks upon Crusoe’s “manly independence” as well as “the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” This description matches Watney perfectly. Certainly, some of the “efficient intelligence” is outsourced to Earth in The Martian, since many of the characters in the movie exist solely to deliver a domain-specific plot device to its proverbial desert island. But it is Watney's “manly independence” that is always the focus of the action.

The principle difference between Watney and Crusoe is that the latter, as with British colonials, had to deal with the indigenous ‘savages’, and only truly turns to faith at the denouement of the novel. Watney on the other hand is alone, and disturbingly unfazed by it. Perhaps his perfect Earth-agricultural potatoes – utterly implausible given what we know about plant growth, incidentally – are his companions? The colonial reference is made internally to the movie, and it would have been interesting to see the film accept that potato plants grown on Mars would be utterly different vegetables to the ones we know. It would have been an acknowledgment, however small, that what we were seeing was palpably unnatural, in the sense this term is usually deployed. Perhaps coming eye-to-eye with an unrecognisable tuber would have allowed Watney to encounter something other than what his scientifically-flawless sainthood projects: mastery of all, dependence upon no-one.

In both Defoe’s novel and The Martian, we are presented with a mythos whereby one soul is able to survive against the odds. This is not coincidental. While separated by nearly three centuries, both stories build upon a conception of the human soul that was given mythic breath by Descartes’ philosophy. The contemporary sciences, in a brutal irony, deftly unweave the idealism of pure individuality implied by Descartes’ cogito: we are a social species, we cannot be human in isolation. Yet a great many contemporary scientists and their fans, swept up in a mythology they cannot quite perceive because of its status as background assumption, continue to presume this individualism, a narrative massively intensified by the Enlightenment – originally to our benefit, now to our considerable loss. We have been colonised by this way of thinking; its truth has supplanted older ways of being that now seem ‘savage’ by comparison. Of course we must idolise the individual as the embodiment of freedom! Anyone who doesn’t is not ‘one of us’.

The Martian offers to reassure you that you can exist as a pure individual provided you place your faith in the sciences (while ignoring what these discourses reveal about us), and that humanity will act to deliver you from evil – at astronomical expense! – provided you do not live on our own planet. This does not exhilarate me the way it has other cinema goers. I find it somewhat pernicious that we can be entertained by this, for reasons directly parallel to the critique I leveled at Interstellar and Sunshine. I enjoyed the movie only guiltily, quietly concerned by what it reveals about our contemporary mythologies. The sciences cannot save us because they have become quintessentially bound to our problems; not quite their cause, but inestimably far from being our salvation. We cannot go on without their help, but in ascribing to them the unique capacity to determine what is ‘real’ we extend the power practices of our officially dismantled Empires indefinitely. Perhaps it is time to apply the deeply questioning methodology we ascribe to the sciences to our notion of ‘realistic’ and bring an end to the colonialism of truth that underpins far too much of our cultural baggage.

The Love That Too Loudly Speaks Its Name

My good and excellent virtual friend Jeroen, a stalwart of my discourses, if not perhaps of this blog, sent me this email letter about 'art' (here referred to as "the A-word"), which I take as part of the Republic of Bloggers. I shall reply later this week, and other replies are always welcome too.

Jeroen D StoutDear Chris,

I do hope this e-mail finds you well. It has been rather a while since I e-mailed you, and I believe we were in a discussion that sadly I lost track of in some bout of work. I have been enjoying what tweets you sent and thought perhaps I could hook in on your current venture to start some new train of thought? You were interested in at some point making the e-mails public, so I will write with this in mind, if you might be interested again.

Of course the subject is: the A-Word. I have now sworn to never say it again.

Naturally it is merely a game I play "to not say it", but it is an interesting game. So far the only problem I have had not saying the A-Word is in discussing the A-Word, and even that has never come about without me trying to explain what I am doing. More interesting is people's general reaction of some bewilderment and lack of understanding, eerily frequently followed by them not using the word either, as-if that is what the game of conversation now demands. I feel this symbolises exactly what I find so unappealing and destructive about the word; and it is what made me hope to hear your thoughts: I think the word is almost entirely magic, which overshadows what small amount of use it has. I suspect the word is mostly used to debate the word itself; and to imply importance (or lack of it) in a tremendously abstract sense.

Is it possible that it is not so much a question of what the A-Word is, but rather why the A-Word is? I think I come to this from seeing the usage of the word in Shakespearean English, to mean a learned skill, which I will acknowledge is hard to replace and is an important concept (for instance, "the physician's A in healing people"). In a sense it describes something external to itself there; and the 19th century started using it as a general form of products of such skills still did. Is it a 20th century invention to think of the word (hitherto-fore never needed through-out centuries of incredible craftsmanship) as meaningful in itself? To the point where works that are called so are referential to the thing itself? As-if it were a cult, with its own rites, behaviours and customs, which slightly maliciously has drawn into itself (for no required reason) past works, branded by its own name, so that it can never truly be obsolete?

I see this perhaps not so much from the angle of "what words ought to exist", and rather from the idea that some words (concepts, rites) are particularly successful at self-replication, regardless of importance. An actual meme, if I you will.

My experiment (and joy) in playing the game of not saying it is seeing whether I use the word because it exists and I am tempted to use it, involuntary thereby validating an archaic concept from the 20th century (that has no bearing to the history of ages)... or whether the word has some use I cannot anticipate and find myself unable to express my thoughts at some point.

I would be curious to hear about your own ventures of the word,

And wishing you well,


My reply will appear later this week.